Communication from the Committee of Ministers

presented by Carl BILDT

Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden,

Chairperson of the Committee of Ministers

on the occasion of the third part of the 2008 Ordinary Session

of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly

(Strasbourg, 23-27 June 2008)

Mr President, Mr Secretary General, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to be in this distinguished Assembly to address you in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee of Ministers.

I have never had the privilege of being a member of your Assembly, but over the decades I have had reason to follow your work closely as numerous prominent parliamentarians of my country has - and rightly so! - seen their work in this Assembly of utmost importance.

And the reasons for this is obvious.

The Council of Europe might not deal with food prices, energy policy or treaty ratification hurdles – which we dealt with in another body during parts of last week.

But it does deal with issues that are more fundamental to the well being of our citizens and societies - and it deals with these in a far larger part of Europe.

In May we marked that 60 years have passed since the Congress in the Hague that gave the impetus for the setting up of this Council a year later – an event we will celebrate next year.

That Congress was based on the firm belief that it is only by safeguarding the rule of law, by protecting the human rights and by building democratic structures of governance that we can secure future peace and prosperity in our part of the world.

These truths were self-evident immediately after the end of another of the wars that had devastated Europe.

But I believe we need to remind ourselves of these thruths even in the Europe of today. Peace can never be taken for granted. Prosperity does not come out of nowhere.

If we can not build the rule of law, our societies are bound to descend into a state of legal nihilism that sooner or later will endanger virtually everything else.

If we can not safeguard the human rights of each and everyone, our societies are in risk of degenerating into darkness.

If we can not protect our democratic way of governing – with all what it entails – then our societies risk sooner or later to sink down into confrontation, crisis and chaos.

And this is what the Council of Europe is all about – about the most fundamental of European values and European interests.

This is where Europe has to stand tall and be proud of its achievements. In Europe itself – and in the wider world.

But while being proud of our achievements, we must also recognize that there are significant challenges ahead, and that these values and interests need to be safeguarded everywhere and all the time.

My country – Sweden - tries its best, but even we have to note that rulings in the European Court of Human Rights sometimes exposes flaws in our adherence to the high standards of respect for human rights and that we have to undertake changes.

No state stands above these standards. Every state is subject to the jurisdiction of the common institutions we are so proud of.

The role of the Council covers a number of different areas. But of critical importance is obviously the issue of free and fair elections.

And here you – together with other institutions – play an important role.

On your agenda this week are reports from the recent elections in Georgia as well as in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

In both cases we have noted shortcomings – but in both cases we see improvements in the latest rounds of voting.

On your agenda is also the situation in Azerbaijan – with the upcoming election - as well as Armenia, after the tragic events of March 1st.

They both require close surveillance. The attention that you give these countries is most welcome.

As we look ahead I believe we have to note that parliamentary elections have been scheduled for Belarus on September 28th.

Obviously, we would all hope that there will soon be the democratic changes in that country which would allow it to assume its rightful place in this Assembly.

These elections will be closely watched. I can only appeal to the authorities of Belarus – in the best interests of the future of their country – to allow truly free and fair elections and to invite also long-term as well as short-term international observers.

I will be consulting with my colleagues chairing both the OSCE and the European Union to see what else we can do to further that important objective.

But democracy is not only about having a free and fair elections. It is also about respecting the result of the vote as well as the government that is formed as a consequence.

I understand that you intend to have a discussion on the situation in Turkey and the extremely far-reaching legal challenges now mounted against its democratically elected government.

We obviously have to respect the constitution of Turkey, but in judging how the country’s different constitutional institutions are used we must also take into account the principles and practices of the countries of the Council of Europe.

The banning of political parties is always a serious issue, but the Venice Commission has laid down certain rules that ought to be observed. I believe that laws and practices that go significantly outside these rules will be seriously questioned not only in this Assembly.

Although stressing again that our task of safeguarding the respect for human rights and the rule of law applies to every country – there can be no double standards – there are two regions to which we are presently devoting particular attention.

One is Southeastern Europe.

At the Ministerial meeting on May 7th we had the possibility of an extended discussion on this subject – both in more general terms and as to the activities of the Council of Europe.

Both the rule of law and respect for human rights have made great progress in this area during the last decade or so – but the tasks remaining are still formidable.

Refugees and displaced persons everywhere should have the right to return if they so wish. The rule of law should apply equally to each and everyone. Elections should be conducted peacefully and free of any form of coercion or intimidation. Corruption corrodes and destroys. European neighbours should be seen as future friends – not past enemies.

Here, the Council of Europe is helping – and should continue to do so

I am pleased to note that President Tadic of Serbia will address you during the week. I hope that a reform-oriented government, advancing the European integration of Serbia, can be formed very soon.

I am certain that he will explain to you his country’s position on the status of Kosovo. Others governments have the same view, although the majority of the countries of our Council have recognized Kosovo as an independent state under international supervision.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244 still applies, and a reconfiguration of the international presence in Kosovo will now occur. It is important that this gives room also for the continued activities there of the Council of Europe.

Few things are more important for the future of Kosovo and all those who live there than the rule of law – and we all know that the situation today leaves much to be desired in that respect.

The second area of special concern is obviously Southern Caucasus.

In this region too, progress has been made towards the building of democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law since Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia joined the Council of Europe.

However, electoral consultations in these countries have shown that there are still shortcomings which need to be addressed in order to have fully democratic elections.

In addition, in all three countries, political life is characterised by a strong polarisation and antagonism between the majority and the opposition. This absence of political dialogue and trust is, in my opinion, a serious structural obstacle to democratic progress.

Key to the future of the region is both economic development and the resolution of the unresolved conflicts that otherwise tend to dominate their political concerns.

Let me just stress the fundamental importance that we attach to the territiorial integrity of Georgia. That Abchazia must have the widest possible degree of autonomy in the future is obvious, but the territorial integrity of Georgia must not be called into question. To do so would risk the stability in a much wider region.

Moving on to the more formal aspects of my speech, I would assume that you have all received my written communication providing you with details on the progress of the Committee’s work over recent months, including the 118th Ministerial Session and its follow-up, and about forthcoming events.

I will only highlight a couple of points that are particularly important to the Swedish Chairmanship.

As my colleague, Cecilia Malmström, informed you at the meeting of your Standing Committee in Stockholm last month, Sweden’s priority is to implement the Warsaw decision to focus on core issues - to make rights real for the European citizens.

This we do through the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.

The challenges we face here are well known: the increasing awareness of the convention and the court in increasingly large parts of Europe has lead to a huge backlog of cases.

In itself, this is highly satisfactory. There are international institutions that just fade away into irrelevance – here we have one that is seen as increasingly important by more and more Europeans.

And then we – governments, parliamentarians – in the 47 countries of our Council have a collective responsibility to make certain it works.

I can reassure you that this is an issue dear to me - and to which I will devote attention.

Ratification of Protocol 14 is obviously of key importance. I hope that a new interest in the issues of the rule of law in Russia will open up new possibilities in that respect, and will obviously pursue that issue.

But let me remind you that there are several ways in which these issues must be addressed. We should all stress the importance of national efforts to make certain that the Convention can be implemented on the national level.

This is one of the most effective ways of protecting the Court against an excessive workload.

The Ministers took stock of work to this effect at the Ministerial Session. Following that, a Colloquy was organised in Stockholm on this very subject at the beginning of the month. The Conclusions from the Colloquy will be taken into account in the further reform work.

These are some of the priorities that we will continue to work with.

And they are all related to not only the core issues identified more recently for the Council of Europe, but more importantly to those fundamental values and interests identified as this Council was set up nearly six decades ago.

They have proved their strength and importance since then – I am convinced they will do the same in the decades ahead.